Being a red-blooded, blue-blooded male in the Carolingian Empire was a risky business. Those who grew up in Western Europe during the eighth and ninth centuries were frequently exposed to extreme violence. One adolescent royal from the period was struck so hard in a play fight that, in the words of a contemporary account, his playmate’s sword “penetrated almost as far as the brain, reaching from his left temple to his right cheekbone.”
The only thing the Carolingians valued as much as ruthlessness on the battlefield was proficiency with Biblical text. William of Septimania appears to have had a thorough education in both. He was barely in his twenties when he seized control of Barcelona in 848, but he had already spent four years warring against the crown. The city had been the old stomping ground of his father, Bernard. Bernard was an important figure in the reign of Louis the Pious, the Carolingian emperor who ruled a great swathe of territory from what is now northern Spain to the Czech Republic. But in recent times Bernard had endured a spectacular fall, toppled by intrigue and machination that ended in his death and devastated his family. When still in his teens, William became determined to win the battles his father couldn’t. He joined a rebellion against the ruling dynasty that had once been as close as kin.
It was an audacious act, and in the long run it was destined to fail, but it was consistent with the moral education he’d received since childhood. His mother, Dhuoda, had drilled into him that there was only one true measure of nobility: “in every matter, be obedient to the interests of your father.”
She wrote those words of maternal wisdom in Liber Manualis, a handbook on how to be a nobleman that she composed for William when he was a teenager, and which she hoped would guide him through his adult life. Across eleven chapters, Dhuoda’s book outlines the subjects that should most concern a man of high birth, such as how to pray and read the Bible; how to distinguish vice from virtue; how best to honor his parents; how to serve God and the Crown; how to handle illness, affliction, and hardship. The work belongs to the tradition of “mirrors for princes,” an ancient literary genre that also proliferated during the Middle Ages. But, Dhuoda’s mirror, the only extant written work by a European woman from the ninth century, is one of a kind: not, as most were, a cleric’s tutorial but a mother’s gift of loving guidance through an uncertain future, with the thoughts, feelings, and personality of its author running through it. Like the Alfred Jewel, the Cross of Lothair, and so many of the most beautiful creations of early medieval Europe, the Liber Manualis beguiles with its intimacy and exquisite intricacy, a glittering portal to a culture that can seem entirely alien from our own.
Almost everything we know about Dhuoda comes from the Liber Manualis. According to her own account, she married Bernard on June 29, 824, at the Palace of Aachen, which was the center of power in the Carolingian Empire. She might’ve been as young as fifteen, she was certainly no older than twenty, and in all likelihood she saw in front of her a life of wealth and prominence as the wife of a noble servant of Europe’s most powerful ruling dynasty in centuries. Five years after the wedding, Bernard was rewarded for his loyal service with the positions of chamberlain at the imperial court and mentor to Charles, the emperor’s six year-old son by his new young wife, Judith. Judging by the lavish paeans written about her, Judith was adored by just about everyone save for her three adult stepsons who saw her and her little boy as a grave threat to their inheritances. When they heard that Charles was to be awarded lands that had formerly been given to them, the brothers struck out against their father and their stepmother, and plunged the empire into a decade of destructive factionalism and civil war.
Dhuoda’s young family was caught in the cross fire. Bernard was accused of sorcery and sexual impropriety with Judith, and fled to Barcelona. Throughout the 830s his relatives were preyed upon. One of his brothers was blinded; another was beheaded. His sister, a nun, was captured and drowned, ostensibly for being a witch. In 840, the emperor died, but it only exacerbated the conflict between his sons. Now aged sixteen, Charles asked Bernard to join forces with him. Bernard demurred, perhaps concerned that backing such a young pretender was too risky a gamble. He would soon regret his lack of conviction; the boy proved astoundingly resolute.
In 841, Charles recorded a surprise victory over his eldest sibling, which elevated him to a position of great strength. Scrambling to get back in Charles’s good books, Bernard made an offering: the fealty of his only child, William, who was sent to live and serve at Charles’s court. Such arrangements weren’t uncommon among the Frankish nobility, where adolescents were often sent to reside in a patron’s household as a sort of apprenticeship in noble living. But, this was not a usual situation, and Dhuoda was clearly concerned to see her beloved first born drawn into the “worsening turmoil of this wretched world,” as she described the events of her time. Thinking of his well-being in this life and the next, she set out to offer comfort and guidance in the only way she could.
Dhuoda began work on the handbook at her home in Uzès, on November 30, 841, the day after William’s fifteenth birthday. At the time, the world must’ve seemed a precarious and unmalleable place. While Bernard battled his enemies, the empire continued to be riven by a civil war, made all the more alarming by a succession of Viking raids from the north and Moorish incursions from the south. Just a few months before William was sent to Charles, Dhuoda’s newborn second child had been taken to live with his father a couple of hundred miles away in Aquitaine. At the moment of separation, she didn’t even know the baby’s name; it was Bernard’s privilege to decide that. Family life had slipped from her grasp. Composing this book of instruction for William was a means of exerting some control, setting down on the page her most valued truths and projecting a sense of order on a world that seemed bereft of it. “I am somewhat ill at ease,” she writes in her introduction, “and eager to be useful to you … Even though I am absent in body, this little book will be present.”
Responding to crises in this literary way was a thoroughly Carolingian trait. At the end of the previous century, Emperor Charlemagne fostered the so-called Carolingian Renaissance, a period of intense intellectual and cultural activity, and a rediscovery of classical learning. All manner of disciplines, from architecture to jurisprudence to metalworking, were patronized by the imperial court with the aim of sparking spiritual and moral reform across the continent and revivifying the vanished civilization of Rome. Central to these efforts was the preservation of knowledge through the written word. The Carolingians transcribed thousands of ancient papyrus texts to more robust parchment, safeguarding vital works that would otherwise have been lost. According to the scholars Costambeys, Innes, and MacLean, only eighteen hundred manuscripts survive from pre-800 continental Western Europe, yet, as a result of the Carolingians’ commitment, we have nine thousand manuscripts from the ninth century. The irrepressible power of books is a dominant theme of the Liber Manualis, and it is crammed with literary references, especially those from works of theology and philosophy, and, of course, Scripture. Like many of her contemporaries, and unlike many of ours, Dhuoda didn’t regard reading as escape from the “real” world but as a purposeful, pious deed, and the first step on the road to righteous action. In the opening section, she beseeches William to “willingly grasp [the book] in your own hand, and enfolding it, turning it over, and reading it, and studying it, you’ll strive to fulfill its teachings,” as though the mere sensation of its cover on his skin would help him act bravely and wisely.
The Liber Manualis does everything mirrors for princes are meant to do. It counsels and consoles its reader, and abases its author, stressing her unworthiness before God and her march toward death. But it is also something more than a dry, serious work of moral instruction: Dhuoda refuses to remove herself from the text. Barely a page goes by without a glimpse of the author somewhere—in her love of puns, acrostics, and numerology; her predilection for tossing in biographical details; the curious extended metaphors; her aside about how difficult she finds writing. When those moments hit, Liber Manualis doesn’t read like a book about how to be a nobleman but a book about what it’s like to be Dhuoda. Working within the conventions of the mirrors, she finds a way to create a self-portrait—not to indulge her ego, but to provide William with something that will keep her alive in his mind, a keepsake as intimate and evocative as a lock of hair. She all but admits as much herself:
“Dhuoda is always here to exhort you, my son, but in anticipation of the day when I shall no longer be with you, you have here as a memento of me this little book … You will have learned doctors to teach you many more examples, more eminent and of greater usefulness, but they are not of equal status with me, nor do they have a heart more ardent than I, your mother, have for you, my firstborn son!”
Some scholars go further and suggest that Dhuoda made herself so visible in the text as a rebuke to Bernard, whose political mistakes and alleged infidelities put the family at risk. According to M. A. Claussen, the message of the Liber Manualis is that “Bernard is a loser;” if William wants to survive the chaos, he’d better steer clear of his biological father’s example and follow that of the person who’s been doing Bernard’s job for him for the last fifteen years: Dhuoda.
On February 2, 843, the Liber Manualis was complete. Dhuoda may have feared, when she sent it to William, that this would be her last meaningful communication with him. “Despite the many cares that consume me,” she writes, “this anxiety is foremost in God’s established design—that I see you one day with my own eyes.” She urges him to share the book with his little brother when he is old enough to read. This may have been empty rhetoric, or else a sign of how bleakly she saw events in the outside world. There’s no record of when William first cast his eyes over the book. It’s possible he had it by the time Charles and his brothers finally came to a truce in August 843. They sealed the deal with the Treaty of Verdun, often referred to as “Europe’s birth certificate,” which formally divided the empire in three, establishing the boundaries of modern France and Germany.
The end of the dynastic strife would’ve done nothing to ease Dhuoda’s anxieties. In the spring of the following year, Bernard was captured by Charles and executed for treason. William might have witnessed the grisly event. With Dhuoda’s command to honor his father in his ears, that summer William joined a revolt against Charles’s rule. He now moved to claim what he considered his birthright, the title his father had once held: Count of Barcelona. A chronicler recorded that when William took control of the city in 848, he did so “by guile rather than by force.” But it would require more than cunning to keep his station. Within two years, Charles had him on the run. By 850, William was dead, killed by Charles’s supporters.
Exactly eleven hundred years later the historian André Vernet discovered a copy of the Liber Manualis in Barcelona. It wasn’t the original, but it may well have derived from it, and therefore be evidence that William kept the handbook close to him. It’s unknown when Dhuoda passed away, but it’s unlikely that Dhuoda saw William before his death. There’s a small chance that she lived long enough to see her younger son, a man best known to historians as Bernard “Hairy Paws,” who also fought against Charles, become the Count of Auvergne and the Margrave of Aquitaine.
The turbulent tale of Dhuoda’s family caught the medieval imagination. The rumored affair between her husband and Empress Judith became the basis of The Erl of Toulouse, a famed fourteenth-century English chivalric romance. To the modern mind, however, always in search of a chink of insight into the interior life of the individual, it’s Dhuoda’s book that captivates. She was an avid reader, and a born writer, thinking and scribbling for her audience of one.
Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America.